The information tsunami that rolled over the elites

Martin Gurri writes:

The mass movements that challenged democracy in the last century were erected on Taylorist principles. All appealed to science. All were controlled like machines from the top by a “vanguard” who represented the future. At the same time, however, the structures of representative democracy also experienced a transfiguration. The old system had been a gentlemen’s club. Industrial democracy resembled a Taylorist factory, with the millions of newly-affluent and better-educated citizens, entering history for the first time, safely absorbed into mass organizations like the political party. Most meaningful decisions were made by elites who surrounded themselves with experts. The masses were allowed to choose between two or three candidates who stood for slightly different versions of the same thing. Hierarchy appears to be baked into the DNA of our species, but the industrial age made the social pyramid steeper and more controlling – thus, in every sense, less democratic…

Urban “renewal” projects became breeding-grounds of alienation and crime. Planned cities like Brasilia disintegrated into unplanned chaos. The government of the United States declared “war,” in succession, against poverty, cancer, crime, and drugs. In each case, the conflict ended with the enemy standing more or less where it had been at the start of hostilities.

Given the high rate of failure, the legitimacy of the institutions depended on a semi-monopoly over information in every domain. Recall that information was scarce. That made it extremely valuable. Political and media figures who dispensed it were wrapped in the mantle of authority. They controlled the agenda – the story told about the world and their place in it. Failure could be explained or ignored without compromising the stability of the system or the logic of the utopian ideal. The elites lectured from the top of the pyramid, mostly about subjects of interest to each other. The public could only listen and applaud politely. That it might talk back seemed beyond the range of possibility.

But that is precisely what happened when the information tsunami struck. Almost immediately, the elites in their institutions were overwhelmed by a flood of information beyond their control, wielded, in fact, by the public – those angry and mocking voices I first observed at CIA. Ordinary people intent on repudiation made their opinion known, not in whispers but in screams, because under conditions of information overabundance only the loudest, most enraged voices have a chance to be heard. As the public took possession of the strategic heights over the information landscape, the institutions began to hemorrhage legitimacy and authority, and lapsed into a state of crisis. Elite failure today sets the information agenda…

Because legitimacy is no longer inherent to the system, politicians seek it à la carte, issue by issue, usually by opposing an unpopular structure or measure. The effect is to further dilute the authority of government. Boris Johnson, maximum leader of Brexit, is sustained by his opposition to the European Union, even as the Scottish Nationalist Party wins elections by opposing Johnson’s Britain. A populist like Donald Trump can rise to power by attacking “the deep state,” but states like California and New York, with large Democratic majorities, are defined by their opposition to Trump, even refusing to enforce federal laws legislated during his tenure. This obeys the rules of the digital universe, which have reversed a century of centralization and standardization: everything “disaggregates,” everything personalizes. The tendency has unbundled newspapers into “newsfeeds” and music albums into playlists. It now threatens to unbundle the state…

Presidents and prime ministers, right and left, live in perpetual fear of the digital storm. They loathe the 21st century. They wish desperately to turn back the clock and return to the comfortable elite supremacy of the industrial age, and they keep looking for some equivalent of the “Mubarak switch” to make it happen. The elites of our day live under the shadow of their towering predecessors. They blame the public for their diminution, and they blame the web for enabling the “deplorables” to tramp with muddy boots into the sacred precincts of authority…

Barrack Obama recently expressed his conviction that the internet “is the single biggest threat to our democracy,” a remarkable statement for a politician of strong sectarian instincts who, in 2008, won the presidency in part because of a brilliant online campaign. In the same interview, Obama called for vague “regulations” to be imposed on the web. That’s his version of the Mubarak switch. Senator Elizabeth Warren has proposed an equally vague “breakup” of giant technology corporations. That’s her version. The goal is to make the vast digital universe somehow resemble the front page of the New York Times around 1960 – but the time machine is missing, and the elites are filled with despair.

The task of mediating between distant reality and the public, of giving the flux of events some meaning, has always been the highest calling of true elites. In the 20th century, this task could be carried out from a position of authority. So, for example, the bombing of Pearl Harbor became a “day of infamy” rather than a day in which the U.S. navy in the Pacific was caught with its pants down. Events must be mediated and explained, and those who do the explaining must have the public’s trust. With the rise of the internet, the mediator class – politicians, intellectuals, journalists – is now gone with the wind. The election of Donald Trump convinced elite thinkers like Fukuyama that the internet was a kingdom of lies. Attacks on Trump involving conspiracies with Russia and fake news on Facebook have convinced much of the public that the old mediators are themselves fakers and liars. In the digital age, every word is contested, every event is a battleground; reality remains as hard as always, but when the number of perspectives approaches infinity, truth itself begins to unbundle…

The Black Lives Matter disorders that swept across the United States after the death of George Floyd were a theater of moral confusion. At Floyd’s funeral, the mayor of Minneapolis turned in an astonishing performance, weeping and groaning over the casket of a man he had never met in life. The tears were no doubt of compassion but also of self-pity for the part events had forced him to play. The governor of Minnesota wondered bizarrely how violence could consume a state that was “second in happiness to Hawaii.” The mayor of Seattle reacted to protesters’ occupation of several city blocks by declaring a “summer of love,” days before a gunfight in the “autonomous zone” left two young black men dead. The height of confusion was reached when the mayor of Portland made an unsuccessful attempt to join the protesters, in essence seeking to repudiate himself. He was, of course, repudiated.

Like all their predecessors in revolt, the BLM protesters were people of the web. To that extent, Hosni Mubarak’s intuition was correct. The disorders were pure negation, the physical equivalent of an online rant. They began with an anti-police and anti-racist orientation, but soon spread their hostility to the whole of American history, knocking down statues of Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. There were no demands, only slogans. There were no leaders to negotiate with. For an unnerved political class that had lost the knack for playing the hero but wished, at least, to evade the role of supervillain, there wasn’t even the possibility of surrender.

Nonetheless, that was tried. In June 2020, Andrew Cuomo, governor of New York, addressed the BLM protesters who, on the previous night, had devastated midtown Manhattan. “You don’t have to protest,” he said. “You won. You won. You accomplished your goal.” Then, clearly baffled, he added: “What do you want?” The public won’t take yes for an answer….

The supreme political task of our moment is to reconcile the public to authority. The continued success of democracy and science both depend on this. Unless trust is restored, the present sickness of the institutions must, at some indeterminate point, prove fatal…

The public today lives online and moves at the speed of light. It can obtain a car, a home, and a spouse at the click of a mouse, but must wait weeks for a new passport and years for a building permit. The distance between the ordinary denizen of the digital environment and the governing elites in their immobile pyramids is too visible and too great. It can’t endure – and there’s no empirical reason why government can’t be made flatter and faster. Amazon is a large bureaucracy, but what the public experiences is fast service at reasonable prices. Democratic government is a massive dispenser of services, but what the public experiences is bureaucracy, disdain, and delay. The conversion of government into an internet service provider is not a fantasy: Estonia has already accomplished this transformation. Whether the Estonian experiment will scale to larger nations is a question that should be explored with some urgency.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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